Florence, Italy. Good idea to skip the tourist traps?
May 23, 2009 7:16 AM   Subscribe

Visiting Florence, Italy for the first time in June. Should I skip the popular tourist attractions and just explore the actual city?

It's my first visit to Italy. I'll be on a business (sightseeing) trip in Rome and Venice for 2 days each, then I'm going to Florence on my own for 2-3 days. I am considering skipping some of the "must see" tourist attractions in the city in favor of more time just exploring the city. I'm also considering a day trip to Siena.

I just don't think it would be a good use of time to spend 2 days among crowds of tourists, standing in lines to see the same attractions every other American sees while in Florence.

I don't know what I would see instead, but the idea would be to explore the city itself instead of hitting specific attractions. If someone asked my advice about NY, I'd recommend they explore neighborhoods rather than wait in line for the Empire State Building.

Does this make sense for Florence?

One other piece of information - I am hoping to go back to Italy for 2-3 weeks next spring with my fiancee.
posted by kdern to Travel & Transportation around Florence, Italy (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Yes and no. Explore the city on foot if you can. Prepay for the galleries at the hotels and pay the small surcharge to jump the queues - definitely worth it.

Your going in summer, so check out events etc near by as you might find a concert or two. Also, many of the Patron Saints feast days are celebrated in the smaller villages during summer - so that might be a avenue to explore further. That's an awesome experience.

I also enjoyed walking up the bell tower of the Duomo - its a longish walk but worth it.

PM me if you want any more info.
posted by dantodd at 7:29 AM on May 23, 2009

That's exactly what I did in Florence - skipped the "attractions" and enjoyed the city. Showed up at 3am from the train on a whim with no hotel reservations and everything I owned strapped to my back, not speaking any Italian, found a nice place to stay, explored the city for two days and then caught a train to Rome (where I also skipped many attractions and just explored for myself). Had a great time.

I wish I'd gone to Siena.
posted by bunnycup at 7:41 AM on May 23, 2009

I spent a summer in Florence. First, it will be very difficult without leaving the area to avoid crowds in the summer. I don't think the New York analogy really holds up. New York is a relatively young, vibrant city with some history but loads of current cultural stuff going on. Florence is the opposite. It's all about history, art, architecture. You could definitely visit some nice parks and some small local markets if you really want to avoid the major tourist attractions, but most will still be crowded. I'd try to get out of town on a quick train-trip to Pisa or another nearby town to get a more chill small-town Italian feel.

Go see the duomo though, it'll only take a few minutes and it's a remarkable piece of architecture, inside and out.
posted by bluejayk at 7:47 AM on May 23, 2009

Florence is one of those cities where the tourist attractions are justifiably famous. If you enjoy art at all the Uffizi is not to be missed. It is hard (but not impossible-think twice about eating in your hotel) to find a bad meal in Italy, but one of the best meals I had there was at Trattoria Baldini. It is kind of small and I was surprised to find they had a website, but great food. Siena is worth a visit, but if you only have a couple of days Florence has more than enough to do; you might want to save Siena for a longer visit with your fiancee.
posted by TedW at 7:54 AM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

By all means! Walk everywhere. Have a decent, not too large map.

You will unwittingly come face to face with amazing buildings. You don't have to go inside them--not just yet. Not this time. Get a feeling for the place. Cross the river, walk up the hilly streets.

Take a nap or rest in mid-afternoon, sit in an open church for example, the Duomo even. Then go out walking again. Eat late, preferably outdoors--try the gelato and semi-freddo. Window-shop. People-watch.

If you're curious about something specific ask someone or look it up in your guidebook. Rushing past a bunch of paintings down what seems like miles of galleries isn't necessary just now. You won't have to take an art history quiz when you get home.

Walking around in Florence is incomparable. It's some people's idea of heaven.
posted by subatomiczoo at 8:08 AM on May 23, 2009

You can walk that city easily. It's tiny. Italy isn't Disney World or Las Vegas. The stuff you think are "attractions" are real pieces of history.
posted by Zambrano at 8:09 AM on May 23, 2009

I visited Florence for about 5 days last September, and would definitely recommend checking it out yourself. If you pick up Rick Steves Florence book, you'll be set - not to mention other do-it-yourself tourists will have these, so you can always ask them about what they've visited. I really really enjoyed walking around this city - plenty to do, plenty to see - you'll have a great time no matter what.

We did do a walking tour (I'm sure the company was listed in the book) for a few things, like the David, and that was money well spent just to get some of the history of the city and background on the Medici family.

I know you didn't ask about Rome, but we also did Angel Tours there and I found that to be highly informative (for the Colosseum + Ruins, as well as St. Peters and the Sistine Chapel).
posted by antonymous at 9:12 AM on May 23, 2009

Don't miss the famous sights, but definitely take some time to wander around the Oltrarno, for one. I can also recommend, without reservation, Caffe Pitti, for a great meal across the street from the Palazzo Pitti.
posted by The Michael The at 9:44 AM on May 23, 2009

Florence is a lovely city to walk around in but July is the height of the season and it will be very, very crowded.

But see the David at least. It's seriously awesome in the original sense. The Dumo can be mobbed but it's a huge-fucking chathdrel so it can absorb a lot of people.

There are some really good Italian travel askmes, so be sure to check them out.
posted by The Whelk at 9:50 AM on May 23, 2009

Why did you pick Florence? It's famous for its sites — if you don't want to see them, maybe another city like Siena would be a better choice. I also loved Lucca. Although any city in Italy will be full of tourists in July.
posted by smackfu at 9:58 AM on May 23, 2009

Here is a previous question giving other options: Anyone know a smaller Italian city to visit in July that is not Florence, Venice, Pisa, Sienna or Rome?
posted by smackfu at 10:00 AM on May 23, 2009

Yes, go walking in Florence! It is really the ideal way to explore it. As Zambrano points out, the city itself is not large, and the historical city centre is really quite small.

However, Florence's charms are broad and deep. Even if you were to commit yourself to the Florentine Death March of art history pilgrimages - with only 2 - 3 days at your disposal - you'll miss quite a few things, without trying. Many "must sees" are closed on specific days - and renovation/restoration efforts are non-stop in Florence - so maybe those limitations should be borne in mind as well.

I guess my point is - the notion of wandering and exploring Florence v. taking in the sights aren't inimical. Yes, there will be crowds, but even in off-season, there are crowds. Keep an open mind.

I hope you have a great time, whatever you decide. I'm very envious!
posted by arachnid at 10:01 AM on May 23, 2009

Given limited time, I'd pick a couple of major sights (the Duomo and the Uffizi are both well worth a bit of time), and find a couple of markets/other experiences you're interested in. A lot of the pleasure of Italy, in my experience, is finding little places to stop and sit and watch the world go by, and it's hard to do that if you have a fixed itinerary.

I highly recommend Siena as a counterpoint to Florence: it's smaller, quieter, and still very medieval in the central part of town. (Well, except when the Palio is running, when it's crowded, busy, and has all sorts of other things going on.)

I spent a summer working on an archaelogical dig outside Siena, and grew to really love the city - not so much for the sights (which will take an afternoon or two), but for the feel of a city that's been there for that long, and has such rich traditions.
posted by modernhypatia at 10:21 AM on May 23, 2009

No. Go to the tourist sites. They are worth it, and they ARE Florence. It's not like New York, where there are museums and then there's the city. Florence's history and culture are inextricable from its art. You'd miss the whole point of the city.
posted by walla at 10:26 AM on May 23, 2009

The point of Florence is the tourist sites. The food is ho-hum and the city itself is a tourist trap (IMHO). If you want to stroll quiet Italian streets and get the feel for a city, head elsewhere.
posted by charlesv at 11:03 AM on May 23, 2009

See David, but check how to get reserved tickets ahead of time (like now) and you'll walk to the front of the line and go right in. We did this and it made a huge difference, and we were the only people who seemed to know it was possible. The hours-long lines, in that heat, are horrible. And go to gorgeous Siena and just wander around. In Florence the museums are the sites, whereas in Siena the entire city is a postcard.
posted by tula at 11:44 AM on May 23, 2009

Nth on two counts: in Firenze, see the touristy things, but don't spend all day doing so; and Nth++ on visiting Siena if you have a chance. There's a great tiny espresso bar in the second ring around the Piazza del Campo, and if you have the time to explore past the town centre, you'll find some great things. Don't miss the sunset over the Duomo.
posted by a halcyon day at 12:12 PM on May 23, 2009

I went to Florence specifically to see the David. I can't imagine missing it. The city itself, the brides, plazas, and shopping, are worthwhile, but if you don't want the history, art & architecture, why add to the crowds?
posted by theora55 at 12:44 PM on May 23, 2009

Yeah, what everyone else said. It's been almost ten years since I saw the David, and I still remember the sense of awe. And honestly, my reaction to art tends to be, "Well, that's pretty!"

Siena is fun to walk around, though.
posted by bettafish at 2:30 PM on May 23, 2009

Oh, shopping in Florence is part of the city, too. For Italians, fashion is sort of where a lot of the art went :-) Amazing shopping, both in the market and in the shops. And I'm not a shopper.

If (hopefully when) you go to the David, be sure to give some attention to the half-finished Michelangelo figures that line the gallery's passageway. Same goes for the often overlooked Duomo museum, which has Michelangelo's astoundingly beautiful "other Pieta", which he made shortly before he died.
posted by walla at 3:10 PM on May 23, 2009

Do not miss David. That is all.
posted by bink at 5:39 PM on May 23, 2009

brides s/b bridges.
posted by theora55 at 9:10 PM on May 23, 2009

Here's a link to get tickets in advance. I don't know anything about this company, but it looks legit.
posted by tula at 9:20 PM on May 23, 2009

nthing not to miss the David. Pre-pay, get your hotel to push you up the queue, and do it. You won't be sorry.

The rest of the city can be seen by walking around on your own, including the Duomo, which holds lots of people so don't let crowds deter you. Essential to walking the city is a good guidebook or a local guide. I like the Eyewitness books. You could go for Florence and Tuscany, or just grab the Italy book for your entire trip and you're set.
posted by misha at 1:26 PM on May 24, 2009

It's quite fashionable to eschew popular "tourist attractions" these days, as if seeing the works of some the greatest artists of the Renaissance period is somehow a pedestrian experience that only a fat, WASP-y American with a phrase book and a fanny pack would enjoy. I'm not sure how one could put the Uffizi in the same category as, say, Disney Land. If avoiding the Uffizi and the other world-renown galleries and museums of Firenze makes you feel enlightened and superior, by all means do it. You'd be missing out, though.
posted by pecanpies at 10:54 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I lived in Florence for about a year in graduate school (art history). It took all year to visit the countless museums, collections, sites, stores, cafes, etc., and I spent a good deal of time just walking around. It's tough, but if I had to prioritize for a 2-3 day trip, I would recommend the following...

1) Visit the Uffizi and see the David, of course.
2) the Boboli gardens and Pitti Palace are lovely, but more importantly, TAKE THE BUS TO PRATOLINO TO SEE THE COLOSSAL SCULPTURE OF APPENNINO.
The Villa Demidorff (and surrounding park where it is located has strange hours, so make sure you are going on a day the park is open). I can't remember which bus #, but you can ask at the hotel concierge. Seriously, this impressed all my visitors more than anything.
3) Walk to San Miniato al Monte and visit the interior of the church at vespers. The monks chant and it is really beautiful.
4) There are so many churches, but Santa Croce has the best interior.
5) Both Medici chapels are worth the wait.
6) If you are a bit into the absurd/morbid side of life, La Specola is not to be missed.

Finally, hit the market near Sant'Ambrogio in the morning rather than the big tourist one near San Lorenzo. Just as good, cheaper, and where the Itals really shop.

My favorite restaurant is La Giostra. It's touristy, but oh so delicious.
Florence is small but overwhelming, so I hope this helps.
posted by shrimpsmalls at 7:32 PM on May 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

oops. realized i just linked the brancacci chapel instead of appennino.


there you go...
posted by shrimpsmalls at 7:34 PM on May 25, 2009

The point of Florence is the tourist sites. The food is ho-hum and the city itself is a tourist trap (IMHO). If you want to stroll quiet Italian streets and get the feel for a city, head elsewhere.
posted by charlesv

Seconding this. Tuscany has sort of been over-sold to Americans. Along with Venice and Rome this seems to be the conception of Italy.

But, there are plenty of great regions to travel in Italy - Piemonte and the Langhe (gorgeous. best food in italy, period.), Liguria (such charming old towns), Lombardy being among my favorites. There are better preserved cities than Florence in Italy and there are regions with better food and wine than Tuscany. Even nearby Umbria has Perugia and a hundred small beautiful towns.

I understand the desire to see a deeper Italy. But the first step would be to get out of Florence.
posted by vacapinta at 3:35 AM on February 1, 2010

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